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Women and Negotiation

HR Magazine, December 2007Research indicates that basic reluctance to ask contributes to women lagging men in pay.

When Jan Erickson got an offer for her first position at medical technology giant Medtronic, she was thrilled. She had landed a temporary job as a human resources technician out of a two-year college program, and when her manager asked if she wanted to take the position full time, she jumped at the chance. With only a two year degree and little experience, she felt lucky to get the offer from the Minneapolis-based organization.

"I loved the company," she says. "I didn't negotiate my offer personally. I didn't have a lot to negotiate with." Erickson's first-job experience remains typical for women, who often report that they feel lucky to get job offers. But men are much more likely to negotiate their first salaries, according to Linda Babcock, Ph.D., a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Babcock says that decision not to negotiate first salaries costs women a lot of money and status during their careers.

Because they spend time on both sides of the negotiation table, human resource professionals--men and women--can benefit from understanding the social and psychological forces behind gender differences in the way men and women negotiate.

According to Babcock's research, women and men negotiate differently for pay raises, promotions and salaries. The key difference: Many women don't negotiate at all.

In one survey of job negotiations among graduating students, Babcock found that 57 percent of men negotiated their initial compensation, compared with only 7 percent of women. In another study, Babcock and two researchers recruited students for an experiment and told them they would make between $3 and $10 for playing Boggle. After the students played four rounds of the letter game, an experimenter handed them each $3 and asked "Is $3 OK?" The researchers found that almost nine times as many male as female subjects asked for more money.

Babcock's research is supported with real-world numbers. A study released in April by the American Association of University Women, a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit, found that one year after college graduation, women earn only 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn. Ten years after graduation, women have fallen even farther behind, earning only 69 percent of what men earn. The study found that even after controlling for hours, occupations, parenting and other factors that might affect earnings, one-quarter of the pay gap remains unexplained.

Babcock says differences in the ways men and women negotiate may explain pay gaps between genders. Take this example from the book Babcock wrote with Sara Laschever, Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation-- and Positive Strategies for Change (Bantam, 2007). Suppose an equally qualified man and woman receive job offers at age 21 for $25,000 a year. The man negotiates his offer to $30,000, but the woman accepts the $25,000. Each receives identical 3 percent raises every year. By the time they are 60, the man will be making $92,243 and the woman $76,870. And the man will have made $361,171 more than the woman over 38 years. Babcock writes that this enormous return on investment for a one-time negotiation can mean a higher standard of living throughout working years and greater financial security in old age.

The salary gap exists in human resources as well. Even though many HR professionals are trained in negotiation techniques and women outnumber men as human resource managers, women in human resources still make less than their male counterparts. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Household Data Annual Averages for 2006, male HR managers make a weekly average of $1,391, while female HR managers make $967. Babcock and her colleagues say the pay disparity may be largely attributable to women's hesitancy to negotiate. Babcock's research shows that men tend to describe negotiation with words like "winning a ballgame" and "a wrestling match"; women liken negotiation to "going to the dentist."

Babcock says it doesn't surprise her that even in a field where negotiating is often part of the job, women make less than men.

"Women negotiate better for other people than for themselves," Babcock says. "HR professionals would be just as susceptible as women in other fields. There is a real divide between women and men."

Why Women Don't Ask

The differences in the ways women and men negotiate are often attributed to childhood socialization and genetics, but newer research suggests that women's actions may make sense in today's world.

Babcock and Hannah Bowles, Ph.D., associate professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, ran a series of experiments looking into attitudes toward women and men who negotiate. They found that both men and women penalized women who negotiated during their experiments. For one of the experiments, Bowles recruited 119 university students and gave them interview notes and resumes for candidates. The students were instructed to play the role of bank managers hiring college students from summer internships. One set of notes included candidates who didn't ask for higher salaries, while a second set described candidates who asked for a higher salary and additional job benefits. Although the interviewers penalized both men and women who asked for more, the negative effect for women was more than twice as large as that for men.

Three additional sets of experiments found that men were less willing to work with women who negotiated, and women penalized both men and women who asked for more. Bowles says her research shows that men and women face a different social reality and are responding to different cues. Even as women enter the professional workforce in greater numbers, she says, men are associated with higher status and higherpaying roles.

"Stereotypically feminine jobs are the ones where there is a caregiving role," Bowles says. "In job negotiating situations--even though it's often not conscious-- more people tend to associate men with higher-paying jobs than women." Interviewers--both men and women--tend to have behavioral expectations. "They expect men to be forceful, assertive and in charge, while women are expected to be agreeable, nice and attending to the concerns of others," Babcock says.

Women who step outside those roles during negotiations for salary, bonuses or promotions are viewed more negatively than those who stick to social norms.

Bowles says it's important to realize that women's reluctance to negotiate is not because of a deficiency on their part. It's not that women simply need a shot of testosterone or courage. In addition, the reluctance also is "more than just about wanting to be liked." Rather, women are acting in a reasonable way for career advancement. Evaluators in Babcock's research have indicated that they don't want to work with women who push for higher compensation, and "that has real career implications."

That doesn't mean, however, that women should give up and stop trying to negotiate, Babcock says. "What we have to recognize is that there are different social incentives, so women have to think strategically on how they can negotiate for higher pay."

Real-World Advice

Linda Van Howe, vice president, HR services, for Borders Group Inc., based in Ann Arbor, Mich., agrees that women and men sometimes have different negotiation styles, but she says women can use their strengths as an advantage.

For example, "We are naturally stronger on the communication side, because women are raised to be verbal. That lends itself very well to the art of negotiation," she says. Women also are generally uncomfortable with arguments and posturing, according to Van Howe. "I've never seen a woman storm out of negotiation," she says, adding that she has watched men stomp away.

Women, she says, should not try to imitate the stereotypically male style of negotiating. "Aggressive, direct women are still labeled negatively, [while] those two traits are really admired in a man," Van Howe says, echoing Bowles' research. On the other hand, she says, women should be careful that they don't take on too much of the typical role of a nurturer. Women on both sides of the negotiation table often become uncomfortable with anger and internalize the emotion, while men can have a strong disagreement and be on friendly terms a few minutes later, according to Van Howe.

Women "want to make sure that everybody is OK, and we are very conscious of the feelings that are in a room. That sometimes hinders our ability to negotiate," Van Howe says. Women tend to attach too much emotion to negotiating and are too ready to apologize, she adds.

A Contrarian View

Not everyone agrees that women need to be tougher negotiators to get ahead. Erickson, for example, who didn't negotiate her first salary, has done extremely well in her 30-year career with Medtronic. After her first position as an HR technician, she earned a four-year degree and worked on a variety of HR paths: starting college recruitment programs; supporting product development, sales and marketing; and working with targeted MBA schools. As vice president of corporate human resources and global talent acquisition, she reports to the executive VP of HR, a woman, and has a dotted line to the chief of operations. "I am a firm believer that it's less about the negotiation and more about the results," Erickson says. She says the top business schools her company targets turn out equal numbers of men and women, and she doesn't see a difference in the way men and women are negotiating. "We are stereotyping more than we should. I don't think there's that much of a difference," Erickson notes.

Women may care more about flexible hours or vacation time than dollars, she adds. One young woman she mentors, for example, was thrilled with her first salary offer out of college but wanted an extra week of vacation for her honeymoon. Rather than negotiate for a higher salary, she asked for more vacation--and got it.

But Babcock warns women against setting low targets for salaries and promotions because they have different goals than men do--such as flexible work schedules or shorter hours so they can spend more time with young children. "Although it's important to recognize that women may bring a broader array of personal goals into their job negotiations, in many cases women probably don't need to sacrifice as much as they think," she writes in Women Don't Ask. Erickson says women can take steps to advance their careers away from the negotiating table. First, she says, choose a company with a reputation for treating women fairly. "Medtronic is extraordinarily supportive of women," she notes. Second, take advantage of mentoring within and outside the company. Erickson's experiences as a mentee and a mentor with Menttium--a cross-company mentoring program--have been valuable. Her advice for women in HR: Be yourself. "Don't try to be a man. Be a woman. It works," she says.

Van Howe agrees. As more women take leadership roles, women working their way up career ladders can find more female role models. She points to Fortune's annual list of America's 50 leading businesswomen, particularly Meg Whitman, president and chief executive officer of eBay, saying, "This is a woman who comes across as direct and knowledgeable but not overly aggressive, not masculine. We see more and more successful women … who aren't trying to emulate men."

Elizabeth Agnvall is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

Web Extras

Study abstract:
Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes) 

Negotiating Challenges for Women Leaders (Hannah Bowles and Kathleen McGinn of Harvard Business School) 

Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University)

Behind the Pay Gap (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation)

SHRM survey report:
2007 Benefits

SHRM data resource:
Salary Survey Directory

​Negotiation and Other Strategies for Success

Research suggests that women in human resources can use several strategies to get what they want without turning people off:

  • Equip yourself with information. Research what others in your field make. Know what is important to others in the negotiation.
  • Don’t be a tough guy. Women get better reception in negotiations when they are friendly and competent, not mean and aggressive.
  • Limit ambiguity. The more uncertainty that is tied to a position, bonus or salary, the more people are likely to rely on gender stereotypes to guide their decisions. As much as possible, make your case based on clear standards.
  • Network. Join organizations, schedule business lunches, participate in mentoring programs. Mentors matter for careers and compensation.
  • Make your business case. Hannah Bowles, Ph.D., associate professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says female-dominated fields are statistically paid less than those with more men. Human resource professionals should know how their roles contribute to the bottom line and why they are integral to the business.
  • Practice, read and learn. Take advantage of courses and seminars on negotiation. Ask friends or colleagues to role-play before an important negotiation. Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher (Houghton Mifflin, 1992) is an additional resource.
  • Use natural strengths. Women’s focus on cooperation and relationship building can be a huge advantage. Twenty years of research has shown that a cooperative rather than competitive approach to negotiation produces better outcomes for all parties.
  • Do your part to combat stereotypes. Both male and female human resource professionals are in a position to understand the research behind gender differences in negotiations. Resist the urge to penalize a woman who negotiates or to set salary targets higher for men than for women.


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